Witnessing redemption in 2017: The University of National Champions

An unspoken tension is wound like wire around everyone in the Daily Tar Heel office, and it only tightens with the ticking clock. I felt the same way last year. Because when your team is playing in the national championship, how can you do anything but tremble in the final five minutes? The nerves hijack your very core, so you’re left mute, staring at the television hoping the ball lands in the hands of someone wearing argyle.

And then it does. Kennedy Meeks unleashes a block and before you know it Justin Jackson is barreling toward the other basket and stuffing a dunk. We erupt out of our seats. Not cheering — yelling. Because as excited as we are, we know it isn’t over. We know better than any fan-base that it only takes seconds to turn the tables of destiny. But then UNC steals the ball again. A foul puts Joel Berry at the line. Timeout. That’s when my still face breaks.

The TV hanging over the editor-in-chief’s desk shows Joel Berry embracing Roy Williams, then Gonzaga fans crying. Tears are filling my eyes, too, but for a different reason.

Stop. It’s not over. Last year, I never doubted our team the entire tournament — until the national championship. That final game, anxiety knotted in my stomach — even when we were leading at halftime. But when Marcus Paige made that 3-pointer, I finally abandoned my fears in a burst of screams. Of course we are going to win. Nobody makes a shot like that and loses.

Even though I wrote a column in the DTH’s March Madness preview predicting that UNC would win it all, I kept my guard up the whole tournament — until the final two seconds of the title game, when Theo Pinson got the ball and dribbled nowhere surrounded by his teammates. We did it. This is really happening. THIS IS REALLY FREAKING HAPPENING. I don’t know when I stood up. But I am still standing there dumbfounded when Jane, the editor-in-chief, turns around, and her blonde bun flashes past me out the door. Oh, yeah. Franklin Street. My feet turn and follow her, but I’m still in a daze.

A few minutes ago, my friend Acy and I had our hands locked in suspense, and now we’re soaring down Rosemary Street, surrounded by flying feet and hoots of exuberance. But I don’t say anything. I’m still teetering between a shocked paralysis and an overwhelming joy — absorbed by the tidal wave that started building last year and has finally burst, compelling 55,000 people to collide in a frenzy of euphoria on Franklin Street.

We stop under the traffic lights and streets signs that the Chapel Hill Police Department left hanging (they didn’t want to jinx us). Now, as fireworks echo around us, I’m starting to process what we’re witnessing. I turn around and stare at my panting DTH comrades. Rachel, whose sarcastic comments keep me sane on stressful days in the office. Jane, our fearless leader. Acy, who’s been my anchor all year with her passion and positivity. And John, who endured the storm with me as we helped steer the sports desk through March Madness. My team.

We press into the crowd when the light from a TV camera shines on us and another chunk of people. The anchor holds her microphone to no one in particular, but in my direction.

“How are you guys feeling right now?”

Is it even possible to describe it?

“We’ve waited a year for this,” I yell, barely hearing my voice. No, it’s not possible.

And then we are lost in the anonymous blur of bodies. My housemate Caroline’s parents went to UNC when they won a national title in 1982 (they met waiting in line for Duke tickets), and she has told me the tales since our freshman year. Bonfires, blue paint everywhere, every fiber of the town illuminated. Now, we are living it.

But not for long. We join the chorus of celebration for a while, but we leave shortly after the smoke of the bonfires starts billowing up above us. Because unlike the Tar Heels, our job isn’t over. We have to go make something that will live forever with this team — the Championship paper.

The rest of the night is filling out By the Numbers with John, copyfitting the Championship stories so quickly I can barely read them, grueling over headlines and pull quotes and watching the front page come together. In the downtime, I watch the postgame interviews, hug my housemate Morgan, who left Franklin Street to come to the DTH’s back door and share a moment of bliss, check out pictures from Phoenix on Twitter and get chills after hearing Joel Berry say on a live Instagram video, “This was for you.”

By the time John and I leave, it’s almost 4 a.m., and the game feels like a lifetime ago. I will be a walking zombie for the rest of the week, but it doesn’t matter, because the Tar Heels have made history. And I was there.

Nobody will remember us. Only the people close to us will ever know that John and I wrote those numbers down a strip on the front, that we chose the Brandon Robinson quote to go in the wrap. Jane, Hannah and Danny, who stayed late editing the paper, José, who pored over every minute detail of the design, Jessica and the rest of the copy editors, who made sure the grammar and facts were impeccable. We all stand in the shadows.

But that newspaper? The line goes down the block. Everyone wants a copy for themselves and an extra three to give to family. The quad is littered with students reading those stories. And that paper will hang in homes and restaurants and offices all across the country for years. Future DTH sports editors and writers will stare aimlessly up at that cover as they read through their own articles, until the headlines and photographs are burned into their subconscious, and they will know they are a part of something special — a tradition of sportswriting that spans generations.

Roy Williams and his team of redeemers found their place in the sun and dragged all of us into history with them. The beach balls and UNC flags on Franklin Street, the moment of elation and immortal newsprint all hinged on 40 minutes of basketball. And because the Tar Heels delivered, this night will live forever in the minds of thousands people and in the words of our student newspaper.

Their story — and ours — is infinite.

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